When Hollywood wants to shout about a movie, it travels to Cannes or Toronto. When it wants to launch a few well placed whispers, it journeys to an isolated box canyon in southwestern Colorado.
For the last 41 years, that’s been the home of the Telluride Film Festival, an eclectic affair that has helped launch recent Oscar best picture winners like “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo” and “The King’s Speech.”
This year’s festival, which runs from Friday to Sunday, will feature the first North American screenings of a number of the fall’s most anticipated movies, including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s black comedy “Birdman,” which just premiered to rapturous reviews in Venice, and Bennett Miller’s true-crime tale “Foxcatcher,” a hit in Cannes.
Telluride’s audiences also will be the first in the world to see talk show host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater”; Reese Witherspoon’s solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir “Wild”; and Benedict Cumberbatch’s breaking of Nazi codes as British mathematician Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game.”
The festival also will include a tribute to Hilary Swank and screen “The Homesman,” a western directed by Tommy Lee Jones in which Swank plays a spinster charged with escorting three insane women across the prairie.
Over the last four decades, Telluride, which keeps its slate secret until the last minute, has earned a reputation as the cinéaste’s film festival, the kind of place where an adventuresome traveler could find herself standing in line for a movie next to Francis Ford Coppola or sharing a gondola ride with Clint Eastwood.
But it’s Telluride’s Oscar-validated taste that has inspired more awards-handicapping press to attend and file dispatches from the mountains, rankling the organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival, another influential but much larger event, which this year opens Sept. 4.
After years of relatively peaceful coexistence at the beginning of the awards season calendar, this year Toronto’s leaders adopted a new policy prohibiting any movie that screens at Telluride from also getting one of Toronto’s coveted slots in the first four days of the festival.
Asked whether Toronto’s new policy has affected her ability to curate, Telluride director Julie Huntsinger seemed unfazed.
“If I looked at my schedule, I would say not at all,” said Huntsinger, who directs the festival with Tom Luddy. “We’re really proud of this program. We don’t have those rules. We’re just going to keep showing good movies.”
Nevertheless, the policy has caused some distributors and filmmakers to reevaluate their usual one-two Telluride/Toronto punch -- first playing the mountain festival to woo a small but powerful group of tastemakers, including many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, and then playing the Canadian one to win over broader audiences.
This year Canadian director Jason Reitman, who has typically screened his films at Telluride before heading to Toronto, is skipping the Colorado stop for his newest movie, “Men, Women & Children.”
“A lot of people are very intimidated by the edict and haven’t spoken out, but I feel it’s such a disservice to filmmakers,” Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard said of the Toronto policy. “One does not survive without the other in terms of creating a reputation for a movie and the quality of the films.”
Bernard is bringing “Foxcatcher” and six other films to Telluride, including Mike Leigh’s biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner, “Mr. Turner”; the Russian-language thriller “Leviathan”; and the ice hockey documentary “Red Army.”
In an interview last month, Toronto artistic director Cameron Bailey told The Times that the new policy was a response to the effect the Internet has had on film. "Films started being reported on very differently," Bailey said. "There’s a rush to judgment to get opinions out there that you didn’t have before. The intimate atmosphere that used to happen with a sneak preview has been replaced by a hothouse atmosphere."
In addition to the new movies it programs, Telluride appeals to many for its sense of film history. This year’s festival includes a tribute to “Apocalypse Now” followed by an on-stage discussion with Coppola, producer Fred Roos, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor-sound designer Walter Murch. The festival also will screen “Too Much Johnson,” the unfinished comedy Orson Welles made three years before “Citizen Kane,” unseen by the public until it was discovered in Italy in 2013.
“There are no red carpets at Telluride,” said Roadside Attractions Co-President Howard Cohen, whose company is bringing three films, including “The Homesman.” “It’s not that much about the movie industry, per se. It’s a little bit hard to get to, which adds to its allure. It’s a beautiful setting and it’s far from Hollywood hype in some way. The filmmakers walk around in town and are very accessible.”
Though there more condos to rent than there were four decades ago when Telluride launched, the town and the festival haven't changed that much, according to several longtime attendees. That is both a function of geography and design, according to organizers.
"We are the size we want to be," Huntsinger said. "We do not want to grow."
The tranquil environment, attendees say, can make Telluride an ideal setting for a challenging or reflective movie.
Lawyer and dealmaker John Sloss will be in town handling one of the few films there looking for distribution: Ethan Hawke’s documentary about pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein, “Seymour: An Introduction.”
“This is a contemplative film. It’s about what it means to be an artist,” Sloss said. “We’re taking it to a thoughtful place full of thoughtful people.”